April 27, 2011
|A Facing History course can |
change students' lives.
With your support, Facing History
can reach more students.
“Na matoki na yo nde oko lia; liblanka kakaThen a Facing History class on Eli Wiesel’s Night created an opening through which Geraldine found her voice as a student and a writer. She went on to have her essay selected as one of 50 winners from over 50,000 entries in TV host Oprah Winfrey’s national essay contest on Wiesel's memoir.
- work hard, suffer hard and be as hard as stone.”
- work hard, suffer hard and be as hard as stone.”
Geraldine spoke at this month's New England benefit dinner about how her Facing History class became an unpredictable catalyst in her life. Her struggle to find words to grasp Wiesel’s experience in the Holocaust death camps led her to open up for the first time in class about her family’s endurance and escape from war-torn Congo.
Her message to the audience: “By supporting Facing History, you are creating waves that can open the hearts and minds of young people around the world.”
Geraldine Mande at the 2011 Facing History and Ourselves New England Spring Benefit
Ladies, and gentlemen, my name is Geraldine Mande, and I’d like to say, “hi.”
The word “hi” reminds me that I am no longer an outsider. When I arrived in America, I spoke French and Linglala. In French you don’t pronounce “H” and in Linglala, “hi” is an expression you use if you’ve been hurt or depending on how you say it, it could mean garlic.
But now, when I say “hi”, I am saying, I am part of this country. I have experienced its joys, and I have shared in its benefits. I am, for example, a junior at Brandeis, one of the most prestigious schools in the country. I am also a proud product of the Facing History program, which, I must tell you, I credit with helping me to fit into this American life, and also with making sense of the world I came from.
You see, I was born 23 years ago in the Congo at a time when my country was being ripped apart by a long and bloody war. My father was then a member of the military, and so my brothers and sisters, my mother and I, were allowed to live with him in a military camp. The camp was guarded and fenced in to keep intruders out. But it was still a tough life. At night we’d have to leave the camp under cover of darkness to fetch water and carry it back. There was little food. But we were the lucky ones. For those who lived outside the camp, it was much worse. Horrible violence and rampant disease claimed millions of lives.
When I was eight years old, my mother took ill. She needed surgery, and she was allowed to go the United States for treatment. We stayed behind and my father took it upon himself to raise us. He refused to fight, telling his superiors that he needed to be with his children, and for a while, they seemed to accept it.
My father warned us not to go beyond the limits of the camp unless we all went together. “If we die, we all die together,” he told us. But there were times when I did venture outside the camp. Sometimes, it was necessary. One of my most vivid memories was when a group of us, young girls all, had gone out to find water. It took us two hours to find even a few drops and as we made our way back, soldiers opened fire, shooting tracer bullets over our heads. The sky was red, and one girl fell to the ground. At first we thought she had been hit. She hadn’t. Terror had just overcome her.
Other times, it was simply my own childishness that led me outside the camp. I remember playing with a boy outside. I didn’t know him well. But such things don’t matter to lonely children. For a few minutes we were happy. And then I remember hearing a shot and watching him fall screaming to the ground, blood pouring from a wound as people rushed to his aid. I ran all the way home terrified. To this day, I don’t know what happened to that boy.
In 2004, the war ended, and so did the authorities’ patience with my father. They threw us out of the camp. I remember walking back to our quarters from school and seeing all the neighborhood children pointing at me. I didn’t know why. And then I saw that everything we owned, little as it was, had been thrown out in front of our home.
We drifted from there to my grandmother’s house, a cramped and dirty place in another city, and then to a camp in Cameroon. At last, word came that we had received permission from the US government to join my mother in Massachusetts.
Arriving in America, I was enrolled in an ESL class at Brookline High School. I felt isolated and torn. My parents were torn, too. They had grown up in a world with very different values. They were very traditional. The secular ways of America frightened them, and made them feel as if they were in danger of losing their children. In America, teenage girls and boys go out and learn about the world. Not in the Congo. For the longest time my parents tried to make me live the life we had left behind. When they realized that I wanted to be part of this world, they threatened to send me back. It was, I knew, an idle threat. There was no one left in Congo to send me back to.
Maybe it was that they finally understood that I was part of this American world, or maybe the daily struggle to earn a living in this new country took all the fight out of them. But eventually we found a kind of peace.
But I had still not found my own peace. That finally came when I was 17. I was in my junior year in high school, taking a Facing History class in which we studied Elie Wiesel’s Night, when my teacher, Ms. Allison Frydman, urged me to write an essay for a contest that Oprah Winfrey was sponsoring. My teacher told me that when she looked at me, she saw potential. I did not.
I believed that I lacked the skills with the English language, that if I wrote, or worse, read my writing out loud, that I would be laughed at. Ridiculed. But my Facing History teacher wouldn’t give up. She took small steps. First she said that everyone in class had to read the book. And being a well-mannered student, I agreed. And then she said that we had to write a one-page paper, and again, I agreed, because I wanted to be a good student. And when she suggested that I expand my paper, again I did as I was told. As simply and as honestly as I could, I compared and contrasted Mr. Wiesel’s experiences in the Holocaust with my own life in the Congo.
Maybe my writing was awkward. And maybe I was embarrassed by it. But looking back, I can see that my story was more important than the words I chose to express it. I remembered how touched I had been reading about how hunger had tormented Mr. Wiesel. I had seen that kind of hunger; I had come close to it myself. There were nights when I couldn’t swallow my own meager rations because there were other children who weren’t getting any food, and I knew I didn't have enough to share.
I didn’t have the words in English to sum up the fear and the horror of that time. Maybe I still don’t. But there are words in Linglala, words that were meant to teach us to survive, but really showed how desperate we had become. “Na matoki na yo nde oko lia; liblanka kaka,” which means, “work hard, suffer hard and be as hard as stone.”
One day, my teacher asked me to read my essay aloud in class. That time, I drew the line. I said no. And she said, “Okay, I will read it for you.” I will never forget the reaction of the other students. They were so supportive and so moved by it. We had shared something. Not long after that, I learned that my essay was one of 50 selected from over 50,000 entries.
I cannot tell you that I can draw a straight line from that award to my acceptance at Brandeis. But I can tell you this: When I finish my studies at Brandeis, I plan to get a graduate degree in International Global Studies and I hope to someday return to the Congo to work with children, especially the girls. My dream is to develop programs that will help them envision a life beyond the lives they’re living now.
I can draw a straight line from that desire right back to that Facing History teacher who hounded, challenged and ultimately inspired me. I have told my story at several events, a panel at the Boston Public Library, again as part of Facing History’s Choosing to Participate program. I know my story moves people. But I can tell it because only Facing History empowered me.
Had I not taken that Facing History class I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Facing History not only impacted me, but hopefully because of Facing History many girls in the Congo will one day see a change in their lives. By supporting Facing History, you are creating waves that can open the hearts and minds of young people around the world.
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